Clemson is looking to secure its place as the comeback kid of college football for the second season in a row.
This Saturday, the Tigers (5-4, 4-3 in the ACC) will try to notch their fifth win in a row when they play a Duke team (1-8, 0-6) in the midst of a four-game skid at Wallace Wade Stadium at 1 p.m.
After beginning the season with a disappointing 1-4 record, Clemson is now in a position to extend its about-face winning streak and become bowl-eligible with a victory in Durham.
“Coming back from a 1-4 start says a lot about the character of this team,” head coach Tommy Bowden said. “You would rather not be in that situation to begin with, but we have and we have responded well.”
Defensive improvements have been key to the Tigers’ recent success. After allowing an average of 422 yards of offense during its first five games, Clemson has tightened up, permitting an average of only 265 offensive yards in the last four contests. Bowden marked a players-only meeting before the Utah State game Oct. 16 as the turning point for his team’s defense.
“There’s a sense of urgency,” senior defensive end Mo Fountain said.
Linebacker LeRoy Hill has been a source of renewed vigor for the Tiger defense. Hill, the current ACC leader in sacks and tackles-for-loss, could be dangerous to Duke quarterback Mike Schneider. Schneider and the Blue Devil offense had trouble gaining yards against the tough Florida State defense last week, and the renewed Clemson defense is not likely to be any more susceptible to big plays.
Duke’s leading rusher Cedric Dargan said he is looking forward to the challenge of playing against Hill, a personal acquaintance, but he is focused on his team’s offensive performance, not the Clemson defense.
“I’m looking for our players to make big plays, and that’s about it,” Dargan said.
Turnovers have plagued both the Tigers and the Blue Devils this season. But while Clemson has improved its turnover margin in recent weeks, Duke has continued to struggle, committing five turnovers last week against Florida State.
Head coach Ted Roof has addressed this problem by emphasizing ball handling in practice this week and focusing on retaining possession for his team.
“We’ve got to protect the football and take care of it,” Roof said. “We spend a lot of time talking about taking care of the ball, about it being more precious than gold.”
Clemson’s offense has been lackluster this season, only showing improvement in the last few games. Quarterback Charlie Whitehurst had difficulties with accuracy early on, throwing 11 interceptions in the first five games, compared to only three in the last four. Reggie Merriweather became the first Clemson player to rush for more than 100 yards this season in Miami last week.
One exception to Clemson’s middling offensive production has been standout junior Justin Miller on special teams. Miller currently leads the nation in yards on kick returns and is second in the ACC for yards on punt returns.
Duke will look to take advantage of any Whitehurst miscues, as the Blue Devils have had success in forcing interceptions. John Talley leads the league with four interceptions on the season, and Codey Lowe had a pickoff that led to Duke’s only touchdown against Florida State.
Whitehurst does have a history of success at Wallace Wade Stadium. The junior’s first college start was at Duke in 2002, when he threw for a school-record 420 yards and surrendered no interceptions in a close 34-31 victory.
“[Whitehurst] makes good decisions,” Roof said. “He’s got enough evadability and escapability to stand the rush and deliver the ball and make a big play. It’s dangerous.”
Clemson is a hot team on a four-game winning streak, but it does not have a history of dominance in Durham. Six of the last seven games between the two programs at Wallace Wade Stadium have been decided by a margin of a touchdown or less. This weekend, the Blue Devils hope to use their home-field advantage to end their own four-game losing streak and the Tigers’ winning streak in one blow.
“[The Tigers] are getting a lot of confidence,” Roof said. “But they all count one, and this one counts the same as anything else. We’ll go to work and see what happens.”
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